Sometime in the early 1970s, Gary Grice's younger cousin did something incredibly foolish and potentially fatal: He stuck a pair of metal tweezers into an electrical outlet, which violently shocked him, burnt his hand and blackened the wall around the outlet. A doctor later told Grice's aunt her son would have died if it weren't for the rubber sneakers he was wearing. Hearing about this strange turn of events intrigued a 7-year-old Grice. "How can rubber have saved him?" the now 48-year-old says. "Why does electricity travel through some things and not through others?"
That boy would grow up to be GZA (a.k.a. the Genius), one of the original members of Wu-Tang Clan, the iconic Staten Island rap clique. After Wu-Tang forced their way into hip-hop prominence with 1993's Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), its members began to fire off solo albums. GZA's Liquid Swords (1995) quickly emerged as one of the best of the pack, owing to its gritty, barbed beats; inventive rhymes; and sordid, minutiae-heavy tales of crime and power. It was as close as we'll ever get to The Wire of hip-hop.
The subject of Dark Matter--GZA's sixth solo album, which he has been working on for a while and anticipates arriving in spring 2015--is a far cry from that 1995 tome. "It's an album inspired by science, physics, space, time, the beginning--a beginning--and a whole bunch of other things [such as] black holes and quasars," Grice says. In a 2012 Rolling Stone interview, he described it as "a journey of the universe." Music-wise, he's about 40 percent finished; expect hard beats, ample strings and an orchestral feel when it comes to riffs.
Although no music from Dark Matter has been made public, Grice has revealed words from "The Spark," a track concerning the Big Bang Theory that begins, "Before space and time, thought produced a speck of light/It was infinitely hot, so extremely bright/Within the center of this great shining/It was massive energy, and it was expanding in great timing/Within this fireball was all of space of every special place with information encased/Literally, a beginning." It's a three-minute-long tune, the MC notes, about an event that occurs in less than a second of our time.
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In the past four-ish years, Grice has made a concerted effort to focus on speaking about hip-hop and science in higher institutions and other intellectual-friendly venues--he has been to Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology--instead of writing or performing music. It's in places such as these that he has recited "The Spark"; in a recent TED Talk, he described hip-hop as his "vehicle to scientific and universal enlightenment." He's been running Science Genius with Columbia University's Dr. Christopher Emdin; it's a program that encourages high school students to study and think about science by delivering their takes in rhyme. Grice has also appeared on culturally beloved astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson's podcast StarTalk and told The Wall Street Journal in 2012 that he's plotting a second new album--this one centering on ocean life, for which he has spoken to marine biologists and researchers for inspiration.
Something happens when you are so dedicated to a subject. Action Bronson, for example, is a versatile MC, but he talks so much about cuisine that "food rapper" is inevitably going to be attached to him as shorthand, just as N.W.A were always inseparable from gangsta rap, and people know Wu-Tang for loving kung-fu movies. Grice anticipates people calling him a science rapper, but that's not a problem. Instead, he emphasizes he has been creating science-referencing material for a while. On "Legend of the Liquid Sword," he raps, "My universe run like clockworks forever/Words pulled together, sudden change in the weather/The nature and the scale of events don't make sense."
"I'm speaking about space," Grice explains. "That was in 2002, so it's not new to me."
GZA performs during the third-annual Beach Goth, featuring the Growlers, the Drums, DIIV, Joyce Manor and more, at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. Sat., noon. $40. All ages.